WASHINGTON, DC — Democrats tasked with setting the presidential primary calendar appeared intent on diversifying the process — either by removing Iowa from its first-in-the-nation position or adding other states into the mix — at a Friday meeting.
No formal proposal was made, but a panel of the Democratic National Committee discussed a broad framework its members hoped would govern which states are selected to lead off the process.
Currently, Iowa’s caucuses kick off the nominating calendar, followed by contests in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. No other state is allowed to hold a presidential primary or caucus before the first Tuesday in March.
Mo Elleithee, a member of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, has been an outspoken proponent of changing that early window in a way that favors primaries over caucuses and emphasizes diverse states and battleground states that will help Democrats win in general election contests.
In previous meetings, he has hinted at the fact that Iowa does not fit that framework. But on Friday, he was direct, arguing that New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina could all make a case that they deserve to remain among the early-voting states.
“I have a harder time seeing it with Iowa,” he said. “But Iowa should have the right to make that case to us. Prove me wrong.”
The framework he discussed matches one described in a draft proposal obtained and corroborated by the Des Moines Register, part of the USA TODAY Network which would require states to seek waivers to hold early primary contests and expand the number from four to five states. That suggested draft proposal states should make a case to the Rules and Bylaws Committee that their process matches the philosophical direction of the party in order to receive a waiver.
That draft was controversial at the meeting, and DNC Chair Jaime Harrison began the gathering by endorsing the committee’s leadership and calling for calm amid “rumors.” He said the committee will hold three listening sessions to allow members of the party across the country to weigh in on the primary process.
“Our party is best when we reflect the people we are trying to serve, and it’s just as plain as that,” he said. “This process will be guided by that North Star. It will be open. It will be accessible. And it will reflect the diverse voices that make our party strong.”
Iowa’s representative to the committee, Scott Brennan, said he felt like he got “whipsawed” by the committee, which had not publicly discussed the ideas within that proposal.
“I have understood that we’ve talked about transparency and openness. So let’s live that value, because we’re not at this point in this process,” he said. “… It’s not fair. It’s not fair to the people of Iowa. It’s not fair to the four early states.”
Committee Co-Chair Lorraine Miller called the proposal a “working document” and an “internal document.”
“We didn’t want to sit here and wait until the ninth hour and then we’re trying to conjure up something,” she said. “We wanted to be able to have some sense, as the co-chairs, to guide.”
Although the draft proposal was not unveiled to the committee, many members seemed open to discussing it. Committee member Elaine Kamarck, who has authored a book on the presidential primary process, said that expanding the early voting window in 2006 to include Nevada and South Carolina sets a similar precedent.
“We may want to have a hearing process like we did before,” she said.
Brennan was the lone defender of Iowa, and he said the four-state early voting process works.
“Let’s talk about success,” he said. “We elected Barack Obama twice. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote overwhelmingly — but for the Electoral College, she would have served as president. And we elected Joe Biden. The four early-state process worked. I would like us as Democrats to focus on winning elections, not academic exercises.”
Artie Blanco, the representative from Nevada, said the four-state process has worked “to test future presidential candidates.” But she also made the case that Nevada stands alone.
“At the end of the day, Nevada really does check off every step of that process,” she said. “Our voters are diverse, and not only in race and economic diversity. We both have urban and rural communities that participate in our process. We have really opened up the ballot to reach everyone.”
Minnesota’s representative to the committee, Ken Martin, said the party shouldn’t overlook Midwestern states and rural voters as it considers reconstructing its primary calendar.
“I would hope as we put this together, we continue to believe that we are a national party and we are going to compete in every ZIP code for every single vote,” he said. “Because when we say that we’re not going to include certain regions or certain parts of this country because they’re maybe not as demographically diverse, we are sending just as strong of a message when we include those states that are more demographically diverse .”
The committee members said it plans to hold monthly or twice-monthly meetings through the summer to take action on the calendar and other items. Many of the members who spoke said they wanted to make changes this year.
“The status quo is not an option,” said committee member Lee Saunders. “That status quo is unacceptable,”
The conversation follows disastrous 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses in which technological and logistical failures coalesced, preventing the party from declaring a timely winner. The caucuses’ ugly conclusion undermined more than a year’s worth of organizing and campaigning that preceded it, stoking renewed calls to move the nation toward primaries and replace Iowa as the first state to cast its presidential preferences.
But he and other committee members insisted the proposed changes are not “punitive,” but are intended to make the primary process better reflect the party’s values.
“We have a moment to take stock of where we are today as a country, where we are today as a party and put together a process that reflects our values and who we want the world to see, who we want the rest of the Democratic Party to see and who we want general election voters to see,” said Elleithee.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism